Wearables are a hot topic at the moment: from smartwatches to heart monitors, the applications for this category of the Internet of Things have been making headlines. And increasingly, wearables targeting the education vertical are gaining a higher profile.
Take, for instance, the Google (News - Alert) Expeditions project, which is a classroom initiative in beta that Google plans to fully launch this fall. It uses virtual reality lenses to immerse students in an engaging learning environment. Already, more than 100 classes have used it to transport students to places such as Verona in Italy to study Romeo and Juliet and to the Great Wall of China to examine that wonder of the world.
“The creativity we have seen from teachers, and the engagement from students, has been incredible,” Google’s Ben Schrom, product manager for Expeditions, told the Guardian newspaper.
In a similar vein, Harmony’s augmented reality (AR) Brain app lets students explore the brain in a fully immersive 3D environment. The models are color-coded and provide information about the tissues, structures and areas of our most precious organ.
“The key benefit is that users can explore and interact at their own pace, allowing for simplified review of learning,” Jason Higgins, managing director at Harmony, told the Guardian.
Margaret Powers, a technology coordinator from Pennsylvania, is meanwhile documenting how Google Glass—Google’s controversial smart eyewear—can be used in the classroom, in her 365 Days of Glass blog. She explained that many of these technologies can work together. For instance, after touring another country on a virtual field trip through Cardboard, students could use Glass to have a Google Hangout with real students in that country.
“Glass works best for capturing documentation of student learning and discovery, either from a student’s perspective or from the teacher’s,” Powers said.
But what about the impact on students’ ability to focus? Aren’t kids obsessed enough already by technology? What will happen to their non-digitally-aided capacity to learn?
David Andrews, educational consultant and director of Mr Andrews Online, noted that the jury is still out on the usefulness vs. distractibility factor when it comes to wearables. However, “I can see real value in Google Expedition . . . It could potentially be a stimulus for learning, promoting spoken language, leading on to creative writing projects in lots of different subjects — geography, history, science and so on,” he said.
Higgins agreed. “Studies show that AR can also increase the speed and retention of learning in addition to widening the spectrum of accessibility within groups of pupils,” he said.
Some wearables are aimed at keeping students focused from the get-go. The brain-sensing headband Muse monitors brain signals, spotting patterns that equate to distracted thoughts. It then uses audio prompts to get students back on track.
“I envision teachers or even students using wearables to help monitor when they need to take a brain break and stretch and run, or practice some mindfulness,” Powers said. She added that the devices could empower students and teachers to look at learning throughout the day and reflect on their working patterns.
Meanwhile, there is one big, unequivocal obstacle to overcome for wearables in education to go mainstream: Cost.
None of these gadgets are exactly cheap, and would be well beyond the budget of a regular school district in middle America, let alone impoverished or rural communities. Considering that most districts have cut funding for everything “extra,” from P.E. to art and music, and that many teachers have to buy their own classroom supplies, splurging on wearables seems a no-go.
Higgins agrees that cost is a concern. “Wearable technology is still relatively expensive, cumbersome and can lack a fluidity of use,” he says. “In time, specialist educational technology will make the process of deploying relevant content into the classroom much easier but, for now, it is a case of utilizing what is available as the technology embeds itself into the new markets.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working on the problem, challenging social innovators, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, makers and technologists all around the world to design wearables for practical applications like education.
The Wearables for Good Challenge seeks to develop innovative, affordable solutions to make wearables and sensor technology a “game-changer for women and children.” A wearable built to address social good would ultimately need to be cost effective, low-power, durable and scalable.
For its part, Expeditions cuts costs by using, literally, a folded piece of cardboard with lenses attached that turns a smartphone into a VR viewer.
If and when the costs come under control, there is no doubt that there are a range of exciting horizons to explore for wearables in education—some of which will be explored at the upcoming Wearable Tech Expo in Las Vegas.
“Where does it go from here? It’s still early but we’re working with some amazing content and educational partners to create incredible learning experiences for children,” Google’s Schrom said. “It’s virtual reality, so the possibilities are, for once, endless.”
Edited by Dominick Sorrentino
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